Nothing to Forgive

The rift between those who believe in a punitive God -- a God who insists on absolute obedience and condemns sensual delight -- and those who see God as the apotheosis of love, joy and freedom runs through hundreds of years of history. It also shapes the politics of contemporary America, where certain conservatives are still nostalgic for the days when Oliver Cromwell closed theaters, defaced tombs and smashed stained-glass windows. This is the vein that Shakespeare works in Measure for Measure, a play in which he contrasts puritanism with sensuality and -- as the title suggests -- explores the dichotomy between mercy and justice. The idea of forgiveness sparks some of the most stirring moments in Shakespeare's plays, from Portia's great encomium to "the quality of mercy" to Cordelia's dismissal of her father's sad admission that she may have cause to hate him in King Lear: "No cause, no cause."

Unlike King Lear, Measure for Measure is considered a comedy, because nobody important dies in it and the protagonists couple at the end -- but like The Merchant of Venice, it is a shadowed comedy. There's a lot of ambiguity and a lot of darkness, and at every turn, the plot threatens to tumble into tragedy.

In the Denver Center Theatre Company's beautifully conceived production, director Kent Thompson has placed Measure for Measure in fin de sicle Vienna, a setting that, with its waltzes and colorful curlicued designs, buoys the lighter parts of the play. But even as Vienna's citizens enjoy their chocolate-box culture, we know that World War I and the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire loom.

The Duke of Vienna has allowed licentiousness to flourish, tainting Viennese society. Feeling he can't lower the boom himself, he decides to leave town for a while, placing his deputy, Angelo, in power. Angelo is so conspicuously virtuous that at one point another character wonders whether he was conceived by his parents in the usual "downright way." One of Angelo's first acts is to sentence a young man, Claudio, to death for impregnating Juliet, to whom Claudio is betrothed. Claudio's sister, Isabella, is about to enter a nunnery; in her own way, she is as rigid and judgmental as Angelo. Told of her brother's arrest, however, she hurries to the deputy to plead for his life. And Angelo falls for her. He falls for her so hard that he promises to spare Claudio if she'll sleep with him. Outraged, she visits her brother in prison and -- in a charged and terrifying scene -- tells him to prepare for death. But the Duke has been hovering all this time, and seeing events spiraling out of control, he intervenes.

The character of The Duke is one of the most problematic elements of this problematic play. Some see him as all-wise and all-knowing, a kind of god figure, though the pimp Lucio -- an unreliable but interesting source -- calls him "the old fantastical Duke of dark corners." It's impossible to watch Measure for Measure without wondering why this Duke allows Angelo to oppress his people, why he doesn't step in and right things sooner, and why, above all, he plays the terrible trick he does on Isabella. For the Elizabethans, who attached an ineffable grandeur and mystery to the figure of the monarch, the Duke's machinations might have seemed justifiable: He is testing his people, just as God tests us with evils that, from our limited perspective, seem inexplicable. "How else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in?" Oscar Wilde asked in "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." It is only when Isabella's own heart cracks that she becomes fully human.

In contrast, Thompson's Duke, wonderfully played by John Hutton, is a good-natured but fatuous bumbler, more at home in his well-tailored white pants and brass-buttoned jacket than in the friar's habit he wears when going incognito. His attempts to comfort the terrified Claudio on the night before his execution are so pompously irrelevant that they're almost comic. He is a fellow who should be skiing in the Tyrol instead of running a city. Sometimes this interpretation troubled me; it makes mincemeat of the wonderful speech "Be absolute for death," for example. But it also makes sense of some of the play's most obvious contradictions.

Thompson has chosen to stress the nastiness of the Viennese underworld rather than have its pimps and whores be humorously appealing. Where the script gives Lucio a certain level of decency, Thompson whisks it away, so that the pimp's greeting of Isabella as "a thing enskied and sainted," as well as his lyrical description of how Claudio got Juliet pregnant, are delivered in purely satirical tones. Claudio and Juliet are only one step away from being legally married, and Claudio is usually played as an innocent youth, but Stafford Clark-Price makes him louche and sloppy. When he begs Isabella to save his life by sleeping with Angelo, the audience giggles. This is a daring approach -- if you don't like Claudio, the stakes in the entire play become much lower -- but it also adds an interesting dimension.

Ruth Eglsaer shines as Isabella, giving the role its full emotional due and investing her lines with intelligence and grace. Brent Harris brings the slightly seedy forcefulness of an itinerant preacher to Angelo. Sam Gregory's Lucio capers amusingly between inconsequence and malevolence, and Randy Moore is the picture of a saturnine, turn-of-the-century Viennese gentleman. There's great strength in the smaller roles, too: Bill Christ as the unrepentant and unregenerate Barnardine; Mark Rubald as the kindly Provost; Philip Pleasants as a stitch of an executioner. David Ivers manages to make one of those tediously unfunny minor comic characters that infest Shakespeare's work extremely funny.

This is the best Shakespeare I've seen in Colorado in years, possibly the best I've ever seen here. I wouldn't have interpreted the play exactly as Thompson does, but his interpretations are thoughtful, coherent and respectful of the text. Most important, they change the contours of the play a little, allowing us to see it fresh. Suffer through too much mediocre Shakespeare, and you almost forget how full of wisdom and vitality these 500-year-old works are. This production is a radiant reminder.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman